CHICAGO – With a win against the Grand Rapids Griffins on Friday, the Chicago Wolves became the first time in the Central Division to punch their ticket to the Calder Cup Playoffs. This is the third-consecutive season Chicago will play postseason hockey, and the second time under head coach Rocky Thompson.

It was a handy win for the Wolves as they dictated the pace of the game from the opening puck drop Friday in Grand Rapids. With the entire top line out – Daniel Carr, Gage Quinney and Brooks Macek – due to injury, the Wolves continued to receive depth-scoring contributions.

Curtis McKenzie scored just 1:44 into the first period. Both the former Texas Stars captain and speedy winger Tomas Hyka netted two goals apiece in the win, and the power play went 3-for-4 on the night to fuel Chicago to the first Western Conference playoff berth of 2019. With the two points, the Wolves created more breathing room over GR in the battle for first in the Central Division. This was the final regular-season meeting between the two division rivals, and the Wolves finished the season series with a 5-2-1-0 record against the current #2 seed in the Central.

The Wolves’ return home for the first time in 14 days did not end on as positive of a note. The Milwaukee Admirals’ Austin Watson took advantage of a poor rebound by Zach Fucale to give the visitors the lead just 26 seconds into the game, and though the Wolves would close the gap, the Admirals skated away with a win in their push for the final playoff spot.

Thanks to goals by Ryan Wagner and Hyka (PPG), Chicago pulled within 3-2 after allowing the first three goals of the game, but Eeli Tolvanen’s second of the match made it 4-2 Ads at 7:58 of the third. Rocky pulled Fucale for the extra attacker with over three minutes left in regulation, and while his men would come close time after time, they were unable to close the 4-2 gap. Luckily for the Wolves, the Griffins also lost Saturday in their game against the Rockford IceHogs and their lead in the Central remained entering Sunday’s battle for the Illinois Lottery Cup.

In the 11 meetings between the Chicago Wolves and the Rockford IceHogs so far this season, the Wolves have gone 5-3-2-1. Sunday’s match up was thus a winner-takes-all face off for the Illinois Lottery Cup, and an important two points for Rockford as it pushes for the fourth and final playoff spot in the Central Division.

The first period featured a flurry of shots by both teams, 25 combined to be exact, but they would leave the ice locked in a scoreless battle.

Speaking of Chicago’s depth scoring, Tye McGinn would break open the game at 13:44 of the second period with his eighth goal of the season, and new guy Reid Petryk doubled Chicago’s lead a minute and a half later on a tip in front of IceHogs netminder Anton Forsberg.

After taking the 2-0 lead into the locker room, Chicago’s penalty kill was stupefied by the IceHogs’ power play, and would give up two power-play goals early into the third to knot the game at three. The first was batted in by Zach Whitcloud accidentally, and Victor Edjsell’s shot from the point beat goaltender Oscar Dansk to make it 2-2.

Curtis McKenzie regained the lead for the visitors at 12:07 of the final frame on a wrister from the blueline. Forsberg wasn’t prepared for the shot, and McKenzie beat him low cross-cage to make it 3-2 Wolves. Since Carr’s injury, the winger has registered 9 goals and 6 assists in 12 games.

T.J. Tynan made up for his earlier penalty and drew one on Rockford to give his team its second man advantage of the evening. This time, it was Keegan Kolesar who lit the lamp, scoring his 6th goal since Carr’s injury to give the Wolves a 4-2 lead on the power play.

When Rockford couldn’t convert on a late man advantage, that was all she wrote. McGinn made sure of this by potting his second of the game into the empty net.

With the buzzer sounding, the Chicago Wolves skated off the ice with their third-consecutive Illinois Lottery Cup and home ice for round one. They’re now six points ahead of the Griffins for first in the Central Division.

All in all, Chicago ended a three-in-three weekend with two wins, a playoff spot, home ice advantage for at least the first round, the Illinois Lottery Cup, and most importantly, confirmed faith in the depth of this team.

A pretty good weekend as the regular season winds down, don’t you think?

PTO/ATO Watch

With 12 more NCAA teams eliminated from contention this weekend, and numerous junior seasons continuing to come to a close, it’s that time of year where teams may add a few young guns who can positively shake up the lineup headed into playoffs. Last year, Nic Hague earned his way onto the postseason lineup with just a few regular-season games under his belt. This year?

Some names being tossed around are Cody Glass and Bobby Nardella. Wolves fans may recognize Glass from his short stint with Chicago last season, and with the movement of Nick Suzuki and Erik Brannstrom in trades, it’s safe to say he’s the most exciting prospect the Golden Knights currently have. Though this season was abbreviated for him due to injury, the 20 year old center registered 69 points (15 goals, 54 assists) in just 38 games. Glass is supposedly now healthy, and for someone expected to forego his overage year in the WHL, postseason play at the AHL level could help his transition to the professional game.

Bobby Nardella is the son of Wolves assistant coach Bob Nardella, and was a free agent invitee to the Golden Knights’ development camp this summer. Though just 5’9”, the defenseman is known for his speed and playmaking ability. He was named to the Big Ten First All-Star Team this spring, and was instrumental in Notre Dame’s back-to-back conference titles. Nardella could help give the back end a bit more depth headed into playoffs or even add a little more offense to the Chicago blueline.

No matter who it is, now that April’s arrived, I can guarantee there will be at least one new face joining the Wolves in the near future.

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